Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The 2005 Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival

And now that I've only just come back from Kyoto, it's time for the 2nd Kashima Seaside Festival (really hip, swingin' fanfare). Once again, the Seishin Flying Eggheads have been asked to be part of this new, hopefully regular part of Kashima's rapidly-burgeoning cultural scene. Last year's event was really something else, and this year's promises to be every bit as good if not better. If nothing else, it's always great to give amateurs like myself and the Eggheads a chance to be stars and rub shoulders with the professionals.

If only the timing didn't suck so much.

Like I said, I've only just gotten back from Kyoto. That means that, right before the event, we've gone almost a full week without rehearsing. To make matters worse, during that last rehearsal that I directed, some members were absent...including the student captain/lead tenor sax player. Our rehearsal also got trimmed down to a bare minimum.

Actually, I asked Mr. Ogawa to direct a rehearsal at least once while I was gone, and he did it yesterday, but doing so always entails a certain amount of risk. After all, though I have nowhere near his talent, training, or experience, his idea of jazz is mainly Gerschwin and Bernstein. My own is kind of an interesting cross between the be-bop, groove, and fusion we did in high school, the blues and big band era immersion I got in my early college days, and the be-bop/modern/avantgarde of my late college days. I have a habit of letting my genres mix, but jazz is supposed to be all about creation and spontaneity, right?

As soon as I walk into the music office, Mr. Ogawa immediately launches into the expected tirade. He usually does his best to support me and to give me plenty of spotlight, but he doesn't hesitate to cut me down if I ever expose a flank. Our differing views on how the jazz band should be run are a particular sticking point (which is why he usually stays well away from it). Most of what he says are things I already know and have already addressed in my own rehearsals (with mixed results), but there are a few points of contention, mainly with regard to style. I try to explain that the opening melody in "Splanky" falls behind the beat because I told them to play it that way, but it doesn't compute. Also, even though I know the original Count Basie style is very clipped and punchy (moreso than Miller or Dorsey), I usually have the kids draw out some of the phrase endings just a little more, giving it a bit smoother, more modern feel. Mr. Ogawa informs me that he has "fixed" these problems. Oh, boy.

It is now after 1:00 and the kids are still not getting into gear. I made it very clear (repeatedly) that we are to depart at 1:30 so that we'll have plenty of time to get ready for our 3:00 curtain. I told them to bring the heavy gear, such as the drums and bass, down and leave them by the back entrance after yesterday's rehearsal with Mr. Ogawa (and Mr. Ogawa informed me that he'd told them the same thing). It just didn't happen. I'd like an explanation, but right now I don't have time to get one, because I immediately get hooked and reeled into another inconvenient obligation: eiken interview training.

Yes, tomorrow Seishin Gakuen is hosting part two of the Standardized Test of English Proficiency, also known as the STEP test or eiken (abbreviated from the Japanese translation of the title). Part two is an interview test. Every time one of these comes around, each of the English teachers at our school is assigned students to train, usually at the students' request. This year I have two, they're both taking high-level tests, and they're both scared to death. Since I was gone all week on that school trip, this is the only chance I have to work with them. They're not going to let me get away, either. Gnashing my teeth and digging at my flesh, I tell (more like "yell at") the Eggheads to pick up the pace, and I quickly go to take care of my charges.

My...time flies when you don't want it to...

It is now 1:27, and the Eggheads are only now starting to load the vehicles. I was unable to borrow either of the school's vans, so we're having to use Mr. Ogawa's minivan and my BLUE RAV4 (with the back seat rolled up). A couple of the parents have also volunteered to play taxi driver, which is nice but risky. If anything goes wrong, the question of responsibility could become very ugly. Whatever. My hands are tied.

It is now a little past 2:00, we're finally in the rehearsal room at the Kashima Workers' Culture Hall, and the kids are starting to get their instruments ready. Unfortunately, I have yet another inconvenient task to perform. Our first trombone player opted to take an optional standardized proficiency test today. His homeroom teacher is none other than Mr. Karatsu, the music club's third director. Mr. Karatsu told me he would have the boy wait and take the test tomorrow. Apparently he changed his mind. He also told me he's too busy to bring the boy over to the Hall himself, which means I have to circle back and pick him up. I tell the Eggheads' captain to start a tuning and warm-up session, and I head back to the academy as fast as Kashima traffic will let me (i.e. walking might have been faster).

The trombone player is right on time. We get back to the Hall at about 2:40 to find the Eggheads sitting around doing everything but tuning or warming up. My demand for an explanation elicits a response of, "We didn't want to interfere with the other group..." Never mind that the "other group" in the room goes onstage after we do! This moody minstrel quickly becomes a whole lot moodier. At 2:50 we finally start warming up and rehearsing.

At 2:55 we are told to go on standby backstage. We are virtually going on cold.

3:00. Curtain time. Part Two of the Festival begins with us.

Unlike last year, this year's Kashima Seaside Jazz Festival has a definite theme. They've divided it into sections, each representing a period of jazz history. Part One was dixieland. (African folk songs, field hollers, Haitian dance music, blues, and ragtime would have been more appropriate, but I shan't burst the bubble.) Part Two is the Swing Era. We were asked to represent the latter, so our set is basically a very condensed "who's who" of 30s and 40s swing.

We open with "Splanky", and my teeth are clenched. That was our opener at that political rally in Mito a couple of weeks ago, and it was very uninspired then, even languid. I gave the kids what-for about that, and it appears to have sunk in. Despite Mr. Ogawa's "fixing" it, or maybe even because of it, it sounds pretty good today. The three improv solos in the middle are also much better than in Mito, particularly since the guy at the mixing console is able to boost our somewhat weak bari sax player so her solo can at least be heard. The warm audience response also does much to energize the Eggheads.

Next, at the request of the event organizers, I pick up my clarinet, and we do Benny Goodman's "Let's Dance" followed by Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade". Not one of my most impressive performances, I'd say (and I tend to say that a lot), but it feels really good, and the loud, enthusiastic audience is a shot in the arm. I'm definitely feeling in the groove. I'd happily do several more pieces if the Eggheads had them in their repertoire, but it's time to move on. My clarinet goes back on its stand, and I'm back in director mode.

Continuing on the Glenn Miller page, we play "Little, Brown Jug". That has long been a sort of standard with the Eggheads, and the kids have it down pat. It goes really well.

We follow it by moving on to Duke Ellington, starting with a more modern arrangement of "Take the A Train". It's a challenging piece, and we pull out the stops. It is here that our weaknesses start to appear; there's a sloppy entrance here, a slightly rushed phrase there, finger flubs in a couple of fast 16th-note runs, and a long, be-bop-style tenor solo that ends up being just a lot of uninspired eighth notes, but we still hold it together and keep the energy going. It is also in this piece that our one real screw-up takes place. The Eggheads originally had three drummers, but one of them, the boy who played on "A Train", dropped out a few weeks ago. The girl who took his place is the older of the two remaining drummers but by far the less talented. She also went on the school trip to Hiroshima and Kyoto during the past week, meaning no rehearsal time. Even so, if she is anything, she is determined, and she goes nuts on her extended drum break. She puts everything she has into it, and we are amazed. Unfortunately, she gets carried away, and she loses control right at the final count-off. Her eyes and mouth open wide in horror, she tumbles completely off the beat (and, for a fraction of a second, loses her grip on one of the sticks), but by some miracle (or simply because the kids are good :-) ) the rest of the band comes in tight and strong on the following entrance. We pull out as if nothing happened.

Hey, if it's perfect, it's not jazz! Besides, the audience is still being wonderful!

We follow that with "It Don't Mean a Thing (if It Ain't Got That Swing)", and we are pumped up enough for me to take it fast. That was the Eggheads' traditional closing number from 1999 till 2002, but it has sat in the cupboard since then. I pulled it out only a few weeks ago just for this event, and we only rehearsed it a couple of times. Ironically, it is perhaps the best performance of the evening. In fact, it feels so good...and there is so much time left in our slot...that I am all ready to yell out for an encore (which would have been "Blue Bossa"), but the emcee doesn't hesitate to jump on the stage and start yammering away as soon as the final beat of "It Don't Mean a Thing" thumps down.

She also doesn't hesitate to call me over for an interview (natch). I don't really mind, because I always tend to milk those things for all they're worth, but it just seems so cliche. Oh, long as the crowd is happy, right?

After that I go to see off the Eggheads, but I'm immediately grabbed and pressed into service doing something else. Once the Swing Era bit is done (and there are two professional groups after us in Part Two), they start Part Three, which has a modern jazz theme. They have rearranged the stage into a smoky nightclub scene complete with a neon sign saying "Seaside Jazz Club" and customers at the tables! Naturally, the focus is on combos, and they are all professional (and, in fact, one of the guest soloists, Saori Yano a very tall, female saxophonist, is one of Japan's current up-and-coming jazz stars!). So, what do they want me for? I'm glad you asked! They want me to be an English-speaking announcer, such as you always hear on FM radio stations and in Tokyo's snobbier jazz clubs. I have a ball with that, waxing eloquent in a soft, sensual, moody tone of voice over the PA from offstage. It also allows me to watch the professional combos perform from right at the edge of the stage, so I'm treated to an excellent show.

As with last year, the final act of the evening is our area's very own Blue Notes Jazz Orchestra, a semi-professional big band of which I used to be a regular member (before my work schedule and having children made the long commute to their rehearsal room a bit too inconvenient). They used to...well...stink...back in those days, but now they are sounding a lot better. They also have a lot more members than before. Their set, which they have apparently only just decided on, sounds a bit tentative and haphazard, but they still put on a decent performance.

And then there is the encore. Last year they tried to invite members of all the performing groups and anyone who had an instrument on hand to join in a performance of "Sing, Sing, Sing", but Mr. Ogawa and I were the only ones left, so we wound up being in the spotlight. This year they try doing more or less the same thing, but this time with "It Don't Mean a Thing (if It Ain't Got That Swing)" (a different, much-slower version than the one the Flying Eggheads played). Mr. Ogawa gave the whole event a wide berth this time, but one of the professional artists is here. It's the clarinetist from the dixieland band. Once again, it looks like we're having a twin-clarinet extravaganza, and this time I'm clearly the one who's wetter behind the ears. I'm not complaining at all. The pro (a 45-year-playing-veteran whose name I never learn) is a really good sort, and we have a blast trading improv solos. Then, as the event organizer gives the farewell speech and the curtain starts to close, the pro and I launch into an impromptu duet of "Home Sweet Home" (The old dixieland standard, NOT the Guns n' Roses one, dumb!) climaxing in a lovely "amen", with everyone onstage singing along, just as the curtain finishes closing.

Beautiful!!!!!!!! It's bourbon & Coke time!
And now I can turn my attention back to Moussorgsky...


  • Good to hear things came together. You deserve your bourbon and coke. Cheers!

    By Blogger Pa've, at 6:32 PM  

  • What a great climax to a busy week. Sorry to have missed the fun.

    I am sure that when it was hip to be hep, you would of been hep.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:40 PM  

  • Bacardi and Cola?


    By Blogger DewKid, at 9:36 AM  

  • I like that, too.
    But I think Meyer's (Jamaican rum) and Cola is even better.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:32 PM  

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